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Interim chief takes on DCF pressure

Lucy Hadi looked like she would never work for the state's social services agency again, not after a 1993 grand jury report said her actions in a multimillion-dollar computer fiasco "can only be considered improper and wrong."

But now Hadi leads the agency she left in controversy a decade ago. Gov. Jeb Bush recently named her interim director of the state Department of Children and Families.

This puts Hadi in charge of what may be the state's most troubled agency, in a job that some call the worst pressure-cooker in Florida government. She succeeds two other directors who resigned, one amid a controversy over contracting and influence, the other after the state embarrassed itself by losing track of a 5-year-old girl who has never been found.

Hadi, 58, says she's exactly where she wants to be.

Leading DCF, which oversees foster care, mental health and substance abuse services and other programs, gives her an opportunity "to make a difference, a real difference," she said. "I can't think of anything that would be a greater honor than that."

Bush appointed her only as interim director, but Hadi said in an interview last week that "I would like to be considered for the long-term position" as well.

Bush, who has devoted most of his time lately to hurricane duties, said last week he has no timetable for deciding whom to appoint permanently. "I have enough confidence in her that I haven't been pushing the search," he said.

DCF has been a magnet for controversy for at least a decade. Some of the troubles stem from botched cases involving abused children _ such as the former foster child in Hernando County who was 10 years old and 29 pounds, or the 6-year-old Lake County girl killed by her father after caseworkers overlooked obvious signs of abuse. Sometimes it's how the agency doles out its business, such as when it was accused of bypassing state rules for a massive computer project, or the recent dust-up with former Secretary Jerry Regier and some top aides.

Bush has twice appointed permanent DCF secretaries and twice picked outsiders. His first, Kathleen Kearney, was a Broward circuit judge, not a social service administrator. The second, Regier, was an experienced social service administrator in Oklahoma and for the federal government, but had not worked in Florida.

By picking Hadi, at least temporarily, Bush has taken a different tack. She is a longtime Tallahassee insider, probably one of the best-traveled bureaucrats Floridians have never heard of.

After graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Florida State University, Hadi in 1971 went to work with DCF _ then known as the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services _ as a "planner and evaluator." By 1975 she was executive staff director in the Office of the Secretary. She spent a short stint as acting district administrator in Pinellas and Pasco counties in 1978, and also served as district administrator in the Orlando and Jacksonville areas, before moving to higher administrative posts in Tallahassee in the early 1990s.

The 1993 grand jury report criticized a computer called the FLORIDA system, and concluded that "all checks and balances were ignored" in the agency's drive to complete the system before Gov. Bob Martinez's 1990 re-election campaign. The report's harshest criticisms were reserved for others, including two former DCF secretaries. But it said Hadi had sought an "after the fact approval" of a computer purchase in 1992, "in violation of Chapter 287, Florida Statutes."

Hadi said last week she thought her actions were appropriate. A separate legislative report on the computer was far less critical and did not specifically criticize Hadi.

She left the agency, but she was back in state government in 1995, serving as staff coordinator for a Senate committee. Officials at the time said they knew about the grand jury report but selected her for the post after hearing praise from former colleagues.

She rose to become executive director for policy under then-Florida Senate President Toni Jennings. Since then she has held key positions at a state agency handling welfare and worker training, and at DCF, before becoming chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Jennings last May.

Hadi bounced back from the grand jury report by impressing colleagues with her drive and decisiveness in the sometimes slow and convoluted bureaucracy. Many of those co-workers are effusive in their praise.

When a reporter last week called the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to review a report concerning the FLORIDA system, the staff director Terry Shoffstall said Hadi is "absolutely as honest and as fair a person as you'd ever want to find. She's up to the task."

Shoffstall met Hadi not under the best of circumstances, when the committee was investigating the computer questions. Later, in her Senate job, she was Shoffstall's superior. He said she was a straight shooter both as a committee witness and as a boss, and also a good administrator.

Colleagues describe Hadi as driven and sharp, someone who roots out information like an investigative reporter, who listens well, who does not suffer fools, who makes firm decisions and communicates them, even if she ruffles feathers.

"I have tremendous respect for Lucy," said Chris Card, executive director of Hillsborough Kids, an agency handling foster care and adoptions for the state. "You always know where you stand with Lucy. I don't always like where I stand with Lucy. But she lets you know about it."

Some friends and colleagues asked her to carefully consider whether to take the DCF interim job, because she has had ongoing health problems including knee replacements, and cares for her husband, who is ill.

"We had a very frank discussion about whether that was the wisest thing to do both for her and her family," said Curtis Austin, president of Workforce Florida, which handles worker retraining programs. Austin, like Shoffstall, met Hadi while serving as a legislative aide on a committee looking into the FLORIDA system. He too was impressed with her and has worked with her on welfare and worker training issues; the two have become friends.

Hadi acknowledged that because of her health issues, she had sometimes been dubbed "the bionic bureaucrat." She said she appreciates the people who approached her with concern, but said "I don't feel the need or the pressure to do this job alone."

With help from her network of contacts in and out of state government, she said she strongly believes she can help the agency, and the children and adults it serves.

Hadi said she intends to focus on four main goals: improving communication both inside and outside the agency; helping hurricane victims through counseling and other programs; evaluating DCF's performance in more sophisticated ways; and getting better about working closely with outside groups, "so that we are seen as collaborators-in-chief."

At some point, Bush will decide whether Hadi or someone else should become the permanent DCF secretary.

When that happens, he may look to Tampa. Card, of Hillsborough Kids, often has been mentioned as a likely candidate for DCF secretary. Card said he's not seeking the job, but, "If the governor asked me to do it, I'd have to give it serious consideration. That's different than saying I want this job. It's a very difficult job, and I'm really happy doing what I'm doing."

Another possible candidate is state Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, who has spent much of her legislative career working closely on social service issues, including shaping the DCF budget.

"I would be able to add a lot to the agenda of the agency because I've done their budget, I've worked on their issues for eight years and even longer," Murman said. "If that's a good fit for what they need, obviously I'll be there to help if they would like me to be."

Hadi says that no matter how long she leads DCF, "If at the end of the time that I'm here it can be said that we've improved our ability to be a good partner, we have improved outcomes for children and families and vulnerable adults, and that the staff of this organization is better prepared to lead . . . then I will feel honored and blessed."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at kruegersptimes.com or (727) 893-8232. Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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